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USENET News Groups
Online Discussion HowTo

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Introduction to News Groups

Almost all of my courses use local USENET news groups, sometimes called discussion groups.

News groups are collections of public online postings by people that take place over time.  Unlike mailing lists, the articles are posted to servers and must be fetched to be read.  The articles posted are usually arranged by their Subject lines, and often by Date as well.  You can use news reader software to read the posted articles and to contribute (and cancel) your own articles.

USENET news groups have been around the Internet since the early 1980's.  (That was when I first started using them.)  On most news group servers you have access to over 30,000 different topic areas.  This link is a [huge!] listing of the names and descriptions of all the news groups available on the National Capital Free-Net in early 2005. (Warning: This large file is 1,873,888 bytes and contains 33,628 news group names!)

My Computer Studies USENET News Server only carries a few hundred news groups related to the local Ottawa region, to Linux, and to some Algonquin courses.  For a full selection, contact your local Internet Service Provider; or, become a member of the National Capital FreeNet.  If you are a member of the FreeNet, you have access to the main FreeNet news server and can read and post to the tens of thousands of topic areas available in the Ottawa region.

Why use News Groups?

What can news groups do for me that EMail and announcements in lectures and labs cannot?
Can't we just put up a "Web Board" or a mailing list?  What good are news groups?

If you are a staff member who is unfamiliar with online discussion using news groups, this may help you decide if news groups would be useful to you.

How News is Organized

Different news groups deal with different topics.  An important rule of etiquette is to read a news group to learn its topic before you start posting your own articles into it.

Unlike your email messages, which are usually ordered only by the date they arrive, articles posted to news groups may be organized by sub-topics, called threads.   Your news software will let you see topics grouped by the various threads of discussion.   Unlike email, you can easily skip entire sub-topics as a whole without having to skip each individual posting in the sub-topic.

An important feature of news groups and the software that reads them is the ability to see only the new postings in the news group.  When you turn on this option, once you have read a news article it won't be visible next time you start up the news reader (unless you turn off the option again).  Using this software, you can quickly see if new postings have arrived in any of the topic areas to which you are subscribed.

Unlike EMail sent to mailing lists, articles posted to news groups can be cancelled by the person who posted them.  If you make a mistake, simply cancel the posting.  (Do not post a second article apologizing for the first one!)

Types of News Groups

I use several types of news groups:

Announcement news groups:
Announcement news groups are low-traffic (not very many postings).  They are used to post important news about the course, usually only by the course instructor(s) .   You should read the announcement news group  to be informed about developments (e.g. new assignments, corrections to existing assignments, etc.).
Discussion news groups:
Discussion news groups may be much more active than Announcement news groups.   You are invited and encouraged to post to the Discussion news groups.   This is a good place to ask questions about assigments or course material.   The course instructor(s) will monitor the discussion and provide answers to questions.
General news groups:
General news groups are usually free-ranging discussions on any number of topics.   They aren't usually attached to a particular course, so the content is varied and often social in nature.

Ways of Participating in News Groups

Using the Computer Studies News Server, I provide two different ways of participating in the online news groups: NNTP and WWW.

  1. The best way to participate is via NNTP, the "Network News Transport Protocol".  NNTP uses your news reader software that sorts discussions based on threads (subject titles and sub-topics).   Options in your discussion group software let you control such things as whether you always see all the articles in the news group, or perhaps only the new articles that have appeared since the last time you read it.  (Highly recommended!)  Only the NNTP interface lets you post and cancel your news articles.
  2. The WWW Gate is a Web interface to the discussion group, for people who don't have or don't like to use the discussion group software.  The WWW Gate is also usable by text-only web browsers.  You cannot suppress the display of articles you have already read; the WWW Gate always shows all the articles in the news group, which may be quite overwhelming for an active news group.   You will find it hard to tell which articles are new using the WWW interface.   (Not recommended.)  You cannot cancel articles using the WWW Gate interface.

I recommend using the NNTP interface, with your news reader set to show you "only new articles".  This way, you will only see new articles in the news group, and you won't be overwhelmed by the presence of material you have already read.  You can also cancel articles, which you cannot do via the WWW Gate.

Reading News Using a News Reader

Most web browsers include an NNTP news reader client that automatically activates when you click on an NNTP news link that begins with news:// instead of http://.  The open-source web browser Mozilla does this, and it is a free download for both Unix/Linux and other operating systems.

Selecting a News Server

In modern news readers (such as Mozilla), simply typing the NNTP URL of a news group ( beginning with news://) will select a news server and open the news group for you.  (For example, try clicking on this: news://news.idallen.com/ott.jobs ).   If this doesn't automatically start a news reader for you, or you get some error messages, you may need to configure a news reading account first - look for a menu containing "Mail & News Account Settings".

If you run an early version of Netscape: Locate the Netscape Preferences or Options menu that allows you to specify your News Server.  In Communicator, you might find this under the Edit menu in your browser, labelled "Preferences".  Work your way down the news-related menus until you arrive at a place where you can add a Newsgroup Server.  The Computer Studies news server is named:  news.idallen.com, though it once had aliases such as news.algonquincollege.com, www.ncf.carleton.ca, and www.ncf.ca.

Starting the News Reader

Modern browsers (e.g. Mozilla, Netscape) start the news reader simply by clicking on the NNTP URL or typing it into the address window.  Your browser may ask that you first configure an account before reading news, so that you can post to the news groups using that account name.  You can only cancel news articles posted using your account name.

In Netscape Communicator Version 4: Start up the news group reader from inside Netscape Communicator.  You might find the news group reader under the "Communicator" menu, called "Collabra Discussion Groups", or you might find it simply named "Newsgroups".  Other web browsers have similar menu items that will let you start their own news readers.

See only New Messages

To see only new articles, instead of all the articles, pick a news group to read ("Subscribe") and open it.  (In early versions of Netscape, the resulting window will be titled Netscape Discussion.)  In the window that contains the open news group, select View | Messages.  If you select "New" or "Unread" in this menu, you will only see new, unread postings to that news group.

(I'd like someone to write or point me to a tutorial on using the Netscape/Mozilla news reader...)

There are many books that explain how to use software such as Mozilla and Netscape to read online news groups.  The online help is also very complete.

Note that Algonquin College has never supported any Usenet news groups itself (as of January 2005).  I host the news groups as a volunteer service. The news groups are fed to my server by the National Capital FreeNet, a non-profit community network supported by member donations.  NCF volunteer Ian! Allen supports the service for Algonquin.

Because the news groups are hosted on a small server at my home, be patient when waiting for news groups to load and articles to appear.  (You know that Mozilla/Netscape is busy loading when the icon in the upper-right corner is showing activity.)  You may get "server timed out" messages when the network is busy.  Be patient and try again.

Posting to the Computer Studies News Server

If you are on-campus at Algonquin, or you are using the Algonquin modem pool, or you are using the Algonquin VPN, or you are using the FreeNet modem pool, you are automatically authorized to post and cancel messages to any of the news groups on the Computer Studies News Server.  If you are somewhere else, i.e. you have a different Internet Service Provider, you will not be able to post new articles or cancel without authorization.

Permission Denied when posting?

If you find your news software is refusing to let you post articles ("permission denied" or "not authorized"), you are probably connecting to the news server using a non-Algonquin address.  You need to have your news reader prompt you for the userid and password for the news server.  See the web page telling you about News Access.

Cancelling an unwanted posting

If you change your mind about one of the news articles you have posted, you can tell your news reader to cancel the article, which will remove it from the news server.  In many news readers, the Cancel button is under the Edit menu.  Select your article, and then select Cancel to remove it from the news server.

If you are cancelling an article because you wish to correct an error and re-post it, make sure you save a copy of the article before you cancel it!

Web Author: Ian! D. Allen   idallen@idallen.ca

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